First Smart Cars; Now Smart Highways

Originally, roads were nothing more than dirt tracks, often carved out by animals making their annual pilgrimage to mating grounds or food sources. Then they became rutted by the hoof-prints of horses and the tracks of wagon wheels. Eventually people began to patch together permanent, cobblestone roadways, and as of a little more than a century ago, asphalt became the go-to material for creating city streets and coast-to-coast highways. But since the advent of motor coaches, roadways have pretty much enjoyed a static existence. Sure, they get patched up every year and a few new ones are added as housing developments are installed, but despite the many advances in automotive technology over the last hundred years, roads have remained more or less the same. It seems that modern man has yet to come up with an affordable alternative to smooth, durable asphalt.
Of course, it’s not for lack of trying. Some ingenious entrepreneurs have been trying to develop solar tiles for road surfaces that would have the potential to power entire cities (in sunny climes). Sadly, the concept is still fairly cost-prohibitive, due not only to the technology involved, but also to the durability of the product. Still, let’s hope they work out the kinks on that one soon. Then, of course, there is the smart highway concept. You may know that some cities are beginning to install sensors at the street level that link up to parking apps to tell urban commuters when spaces are available. The idea of a smart highway is similar, but far more comprehensive.

The brainchild of Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde, this revolutionary idea stands to change the way we approach the driving experience, at least if it takes off. Working in concert with civil engineers at Heijmans Infrastructure, Roosegaarde has been developing a plan that takes the solar-panel highway concept to the next level. It’s one thing to consider highway surfaces that provide energy for lights along the roadway; heck, the idea has already been used on roadside call boxes, many of which now feature a solar panel up top. But it’s another thing entirely to imagine a roadway that charges the engine on your electric car en route, or one that offers information on road conditions as you drive. And yet, these are exactly the types of interactive roadways Roosegaarde has in mind.

Now, you might think that sensors in the road would simply communicate with the OBD (on board diagnostics) in your car and flash a message on your in-dash navigation. But Roosegaarde’s vision seeks not only to enhance your driving experience, but also beautify it…via illuminated road surfaces. If, for example, freezing temperatures led to slick roads, the “dynamic paint” on the road surface would begin to glow, displaying, say, snowflakes to let you know you should slow down and proceed with caution. Of course, one must wonder how well this would work when skies are overcast (leaving the photo-luminizing paint unable to charge) or roads are covered in snow and sleet. But it’s still a pretty fantastic concept that pushes the envelope on current commercial solar solutions – except for the cost, which could be exorbitant.